Costa Book Award 2017: Overall Winner


Announced  Tuesday  30th January, 2018:    Costa Book Award Winner 2017

Its a pleasure to see such a fine collection as overall winner of this year’s Costa Award.

The ‘Acknowledgements’ say some poems have been published in collections, or online and a few broadcast by Radio 3 between 2014 and 2016.    The last poem (not included in first printing) was Helen Dunmore’s final poem.

Here is a  collection of 49 poems in  which many veer between dream and reality where the author herself may wonder which at times.  The Underworld, stories from the classic myths slip into her poems as naturally as her descriptions of hospital visits, views from a window and dreams of childhood and memories.  Interlaced through all (most) is the awareness of dying.  Surprisingly the poems leave this reader with a degree of comfort and calmness from the upfront, conversational language and clarity of style which helps with the adrenalin rush on reading such accomplished work.

From the first poem, ‘Counting Backwards’  to others where her (or of her children) memories recur in different settings; poems personal, twilight dreams, or people; or just the rain  to the last poem( in the first printing): ‘September Rain’.  there is a beautiful control of language and temperament above the full knowledge that the book (author) is cataloging her thoughts towards death. Individually some lines might seem obscure but their balance is always found in other poems.  Water, as sea, pool or rain seems ever-present.

The last two verses of September Rain:    I lie and listen/ And the life in me stirs like a tide/ that knows when it must be gone.  …………….                                                            I am on the deep deep water/ Lightly held by one ankle/ Out of my depth, waiting.

It seems Helen Dunmore has produced an outstanding series of poems which illustrate  humanity and an understanding of mortality to find a preparedness for Death.  Her final poem:‘Hold Out Your Arms’.   returns to one major theme of a mothers endless love. Here, line after line pick up on elements from previous poems and imagery adds more:    ‘Death stoops over me/ Her long skirts slide,/She knows I am shy.’  : from the start of the fifth verse.

A superb collection!

link to Guardian for fuller report


to Poets: ‘Things ‘ to remember


Rhythm and rhyme and verbal trickery
Are the building blocks of all good poetry.
Alliteration and metaphor and assononce too–
Here’s a message from you know who.                                      Philip Ivory

No adverbs or adjectives                                      JJS

When you write a verse they say beware the adverb, it slows the movement.  If you use a noun, decry adjectives as to describe just clutters the mind.

Just think,  “You save so much ink.”


Poets Cornered


Sitting in a stereotypical circle

each position duly claimed, duly noted,

we six practiced our secret art

of Poetry that we wroted!


It may seem harsh to chronicle something so abominable

but we only hope to be quoted when this Earth we all depart.

The problem, some see, or not,

is that like novelists,  of poets there are a lot,

but only few are published, and even then forgot!


Costa Poetry Award 2017 winner: Helen Dunmore

Announced on 2nd January on Radio 4 ‘Front Row’   and Costa Prize website:

   Inside the Wave       by Helen Dunmore

       published by ‘Bloodaxe’

I havent read this collection yet as I chose to look at a debut collection shortlisted, by Kayo Chingonyi:  Kumukanda, Graph Review, a few dates ago..

The judges reviews for Helen Dunmores collection suggest this is a ‘must read’ volume  of her most recent poetry.  She completed and put together this new work after being diagnosed with cancer.  At the same time completing her final novel, ‘The Birdcage’

I would only be repeating the announcement to say more but should highlight that the second printing of this title contains her final poem written days before her death in March 2017 and included in the second reprint of the book.  Therefore if, like me, you are about to buy a copy then make sure it has the poem    ‘Hold Out Your Arms’.

The outright winner from all the section winners will be announced on Radio 4’s Front Row on Tuesday 30th January.       By which time I hope to read and review this title.

‘Voice’ by Jean Whitfield

Probably written in the early 1980s:     Jean Whitfield     1941-1984    Reprinted from her one published (posthumously) collection: Moments  with kind permission of Bakery Press.


I have wondered about dying

will it be a rock fall in the mine

will I crawl waist-high in slime

naked with a feeble lamp

carving at the walls, dirt in my nails

and will the earth say, no further?


Will it be too much richness?

the salmon bone lodged in my throat

the room spinning, a river flowing through it

a damask cloth, wine and boats rocking

the punt probing to the cool clear depth

I am now flat under, black, alone

the pole impaling while the picnic lasts

and will the river freeze me white

and will I slide face up and out of reach?


Will I know there are no more stars?

the moon will no longer ride on her back

above the amber spreading palm?

But the moon will ride, stars, clouds

I will be changed and part of it

grass creak through me into growing.

There will be no end to my river

sparkle or ice-fire, apple-flame.


Will I clench my fist or die

palms curled open like a baby

naked on the floor of the cell like the prisoner:

Haiti, Chile, Long Kesh, Uruguay, Siberia,

all in the cages of Inverness and with them

I shall fight death too.


We shall stubbornly live.

Whatever they have radiated us with

we shall resist the fall-out

of bullets, bombs, poisons, silent gases.


I shall sail with the fisherman hauling

the silver net, popping and dancing.

I shall swim with the dolphin

looping my back.

I shall walk with the worker

rain wetting the backs of my hands.

I shall fly with the redwing

searching a mild cloud

moisture beading my feathers.


The fox stood on the bridge

the proud dog-fox

sure and simple in his pride

motionless in the headlight

and the empty bridge

filled gradually with dusty leaves.


The morning gathered

out of grey air

blossoms heavy with birds

sang rose-coloured

the water lay heavy

under the road

but we walked on

out of the night

knowing we were

last night’s ghosts.


Now I can only be separate

then I will join them all

they will not refuse me

even the soldier who sights us

down the barrel screwed into his eyes

even the general who makes

the irrelevant joke who calculates

and fingers his honourable medals.


Will dying set me free from these singular bones?

All our atoms mingle with rain on the blue leaves

clouds of dust along the blue ridge burned off sapphires

lie on the dust sheets to become moths’ wings

soft flat dust rubbed to nothing with a forefinger.


Each living thing clings to its own self and shape.

I shall reach out dying.

A jaguar will grow from me.





duende, poems by tracy k smith, A Graph Review

duende      poems

tracy k. smith (2017 Poet Laureate of America)

Graywolf Press         2007

Paperback                  £13.99

I read, in late 2017, that Tracy K Smith was current American Poet Laureate, looked out her books and saw ‘ duende’.

This linked me back to books on Spain and Flamenco, (Duende’); Laurie Lee’s A Rose For Winter’ . and an autobiographical book by ‘Duende’  by Jason Webster of a broken heart in search of learning flamenco guitar at its source in Spain.    Touching also on my own early love of flamenco music, dance, song, tone and passion despite my not understanding it or why.

These little coincidences led me to pick on reviewing  this collection by Tracy K Smith, realizing the fact I was reaching out to yet another spectrum miles away from my norm.

A Graph Review;    68 to highpoints 75     highpoints 75

History’, the first poem, ‘knocked my socks off’ as someone might say!    Should I start a review by just reading one poem?  Yes, if it covers everything involved in casting a poem as the key to explaining this collection.  Ostensibly the first poem is a concise history of the world but you catch images, or rather emotions, of so much more.    Explaining?  Or catching, or touching in a brevity of words the longevity and divergence of being, not just us as humans, or as animals but everything on the cusp of being alive.

However,  midway, with some poems, I felt I was walking knee deep along the a river-bed.  The view around me was interesting, stimulating, but the current round my legs was at times pushing me off balance because I lacked the basic knowledge of where my feet should be.  That I knew I could not see the whole picture and didn’t know what I was missing.    These gaps were  impressioned-over in most cases and I came to my own conclusions.  Not wholly bad but at times disconcerting for this UK orientated reader.

In the main I was held by the variation of subject and the honed, concise and immaculate  language of each line.   Poems here are often longer than the average collection, covering several pages rather than confined to one, which is a real advantage.  All free verse, each line studied, each poem a credit.  There is a habit of finishing sentences mid-line and carrying over to the next verse which becomes noticeable with its frequency.  As free verse throughout I suppose I see this in place of spotting rhythm and rhyme scheme.  The momentum of each poem depends on subject, language and line length.  Passion, yearning and questions run through the collection, options  might be left hanging through the moral and political issues but truth is obvious.  Passion rules this collection.  The subjects often trying to help define with critical beauty while describing darker episodes and corners across humanity.

from ‘One Man at a Time:   Clarity settled in the room like dust./ Or a layer of soot.        a quick pick of the multitude of memorable lines

My favourite poem has to be the first: ‘History’, ranging wider than you might expect.  With ‘duende’ an almost first, maybe next reading!      Not forgetting. ‘Nocturne: Andalusian Dog’ or ‘The Nobodies’ and the glorious ‘When Zappa Crashes my Family Reunion’.

A stirring collection by tracy k smith and long may she continue.

Pine Martens and John Clare

pine marten card

Pine Martens cover image Whittet Books


Originally untitled; NOES editors title


The martin cat long shaged of courage good
Of weazle shape a dweller in the wood
With badger hair long shagged and darting eyes
And lower then the common cat in size
Small head and running on the stoop
Snuffing the ground and hind parts shouldered up
He keeps one track and hides in lonely shade
Where print of human foot is scarcely made
Save when the woods are cut the beaten track
The woodmans dog will snuff cock tailed and black
Red legged and spotted over either eye
Snuffs barks and scrats the lice and passes bye
The great brown horned owl looks down below
And sees the shaggy martin come and go


The martin hurrys through the woodland gaps
And poachers shoot and make his skin for caps
When any woodman come and pass the place
He looks at dogs and scarcely mends his pace
And gipseys often and birdnesting boys
Look in the hole and hear a hissing noise
They climb the tree such noise they never heard
And think the great owl is a foreign bird
When the grey owl her young ones cloathed in down
Seizes the boldest boy and drives him down
They try agen and pelt to start the fray
The grey owl comes and drives them all away
And leaves the Martin twisting round his den
Left free from boys and dogs and noise and men


John Clare
Punctuation and spelling as from JC mss,  text from
‘Clare’, NOES,  Ed’s: Robinson & Summerfield, published OUP.
 If available now, a good collection to have: includes  some of Clare’s natural history writing
This poem attracted my attention because of the recent title from Whittet Books but also that it had mention of  an owl in ‘reality’, which I was  in search of for an earlier page on ‘owls’ poems.  I am glad to have found something by Clare.
I reckon the owl mentioned is the one known now as Eurasian eagle owl from Clare’s note of colour and nesting.  Not the white, Arctic Owl,  or maybe there was another variety that is now extinct.
(Pine)Martens are extremely secretive animals and now very scarce in most of England.   From this poem we can again see Clare’s quality of observation, including boys and hunters’ proclivities of the day.    Clare was not averse to egg-collecting in his youth, ( note in poem the boy climbing the tree is chased away by the owl).  I doubt he was actively a poacher or into badger hunting and the like but as always was an observer of detail of all around him, including the activities of people.   His poem of ‘Badger’ being cornered by dogs and men can be read as straightforward, vivid, descriptive fact but potentially as anti-hunting though he may not have been able to declare it openly.   It might well have been ‘cruelty’ that concerned him more.

Christmas mix (re-release)

Christmas mix   

In the tradition of  Christmas, or should I now call it the ‘FESTIVE SEASON’  I have re-cobbled previous years pages into a single and let it escape.


Tastes of Christmas Present




light flute, slow.

Bass between the beat,

counterpoint to lead, repeat.

Fade flute for bass to counterpoint

and softly run, realigned flute and bass.

Soft key piano, counterpoint chords that chase

each other gently, now piano high with beating

fine-fingered bass and rested flute.  Run piano,

gently through the keys to allow the space

between to be filled with fluted air again.

Fade piano, rest bass,

last hanging note.




Have you ever thought

About the world in terms of




Certainly the best and worst verse

have stuck since rhyme began, and always will

remain in the mind of the beholder,

insisting that their niggling lines,

surreptitiously laying down a course

to run with or from,

might just

amass a certain




Carol ran out across the square,

her heels tapping tunefully on the echo-frozen slabs.

She left the sparkling holly-wreathed door

and the mellow sounds within while

PC Rapper and his melting crew stood by the step

their noses dripping and white suits shiny wet.


Across the way, across the square, by the door, the alcove niche,

sat a shadow, dour, poor, ignored by the nouveau-riche

but Carol in her Christmas guise ran out in dress of scarlet cotton

thrust into his hand a glass of wine, turned, skidded, slipped.

and glass forgotten, the man jumped up and saved that Carol,

helped her, broken-heeled, across square of squares,

passed the crying, melting crew and through the sparkling holly-door.

Inside, greeted with a raucous cheer, Carol with fixed smile and reddened face

bent and straightened her strap and lace.

Looked up and round at the laughing crowd, suddenly ashamed of them,

while at the door the unkempt waited, gently bowed as she wavered thanks

and turned and left and walked away, across the square, towards his niche.

And now she tells this story every year as bells ring out on Christmas Day.


A Poor Poet’s Christmas        (with apologies to Clare and Bloomfield)


We sat around the fireside and called out merry oaths

Until there came the players in, plucking music from their throats.

With fiddles, horns and pipes they joined in olden song

Of maids and lords and stable-lads, of all their rights and wrongs

Which to this day warn youth and child that behind each golden door

May lie a heart as black or red as beats inside the poor’.


The sack and beer were passed around and tatties and pudding too

Until our voices burst the door and raucous was the night.

‘Til cows and chuks bemoaned the light that broke their stalls

And e’en the moon forestalled the dawn to keep the sight

Of merry players and happy fools

Take rest from blistering tools

On this our Christmas night.


Taste of Christmas Future                                        


I look out and swallow back the nostalgia

that rises as the shadow of the moon casts

it’s bleakness over the scene.

Clouds swirl like ancient whirlpools with the last glimpse of the sun

reflecting into the depths of the earth below the slow-mo drifts

and I too reflect as the shadows deepen before my eyes.

The scene, as grey as used snow,

a dusty surface shrinking to the narrow horizon

as if foreshortened by my reality.

The egg-shell domes, corrugated, wrinkled with taunting marks,

sit bleakly waiting, inhabiting an almost empty space.


This home, my hearth, no longer valid as a place

and yet from here we wait on mystery; await a face

that somehow sets the spirit free

while the Earth draws us with its sapphire blues of

ever-changing shades.

Those muddled waves of land that crease with mountainside,

the despoiled desert hands that creep into the fertile greenery

of water-lines and estuary but also glint, reflecting the solar miles of viticulture.

And the black cities that burst out at night like shards of radiation,

their streams of light the synapse of a sentient world.


So I wait, we wait, for the promised gifts of life, long delayed.

I am watching for the last star to come our way,

a burning arc to split the clouds,

cleave the grey mass that storms over half our world.


I look down and swallow back the nostalgia

as the curling fingers soften my hand,

softly pull and seek a thumb to suckle on.

The new-baby eyes reassure me, protect me as we wait,

as all around me wait,

for the first colony ship to Mars.


jJohnson Smith